The Mahabharata is just like a good mystery novel; it tells you that you know nothing
The Mahabharata challenges generations to re-imagine it the way they want, transcending space and time yet remaining deeply personal, capturing every emotion and every conflict known to man, a book that changes with you.
The first time I read the Mahabharata I didn’t really read it. I heard it. In bite-sized installments. From my grandmother, as she fixed her afternoon paan, lovingly rolling chuna and zarda on the wet leaf, before folding and popping it into her mouth in one smooth motion. This was before she had her heart attack, when she was still working. She would come to our place, on Saturday, after her ‘half day’. On Sunday afternoons, I would hear stories till the radio play began, which was the hard stop for Dimma.
Of all the stories I heard, the Mahabharata was my favourite, but why it was so I still didn’t have the self-awareness to understand. In fact, I loved the Mahabharata so much that I wanted to dress up as characters from it, Bheema and Arjuna and Krishna, and Dimma was there to make it all happen. She made a goda (a mace) using wooden sticks and cloth, and procured, from where I never found out, extravagantly coloured dhotis. She commissioned a carpenter — she was supervising building her own house then — to make bows and arrows and quivers. If you ever saw an old lady in a white sari, with a well-worn black purse on one shoulder and a wooden spear propped on the other, on a crowded L20 bus in Calcutta in the 1980s, you for sure met Dimma.
Then finally, I started reading the Mahabharata. Because there is only so much you can impose on your grandmother’s afternoons. There was Amar Chitra Katha, the staple of the '80s child. There was also the staple of the '80s Bengali child, Upendrakishore Ray (Satyajit Ray’s grandfather)’s absolutely delightful children’s Mahabharata, which packed way more story than you would imagine if you held the book in hand.
They were very different, the two. Upendrakishore’s book focused on the main narrative, brimming with detail, written in archaic Bengali. In contrast, Amar Chitra Kathas were vividly drawn and coloured with minimal text, each comic presented from the perspective of a character — Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha, Karna, Bheesma, and many others. This duality of the book and the comic, between the words and the pictures, between story and character arcs, led me to a much deeper immersion in and understanding of the epic than it would have been possible from one source. My hero then was Arjun, my villain was Dushashana, and no Karna was not my favourite character, for I could not forgive him for the butchering of Abhimanyu, flouting all the rules of battle. And if you want to know, the one for whom my tears flowed, was Ghatotkacha, the man who goes to battle knowing that his victory lies in dying.
Then came BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, and for those who have lived through those times, the television event of a generation. I was never a fan of the TV series, the cardboard circles rotating behind heads as halos, and the special effects, no doubt special for those times, diluted the world in my imagination, so much so that when I closed my eyes, Krishna took the form of the guy who would act in Nache Nagin Gali Gali and Yudhisthira the face of the future chief of the Film and Television Institute of India. Though the TV series had its moments, notably the fall of Bheesma and that time one of my friends confessed to us of having asked her grandfather what Pandu and Madri were doing when they died, such moments were few and far in between.
In a few years, I had graduated to the full Mahabharata written by Rajsekhar Basu, who besides being a deadly serious person in real life, an eminent scientist, and a master in classics, was also the greatest Bengali humourist, possibly ever. As an angsty teenager rebelling against what exactly I didn’t quite know, I re-read the Mahabharata, together with Rabindranath Tagore’s Karna Kunti Sambad and Gandharir Abedan, and this time the heroes and the villains, why, they had changed places. Duryodhana became the hero, the underdog, fighting merely for what was denied his father. And Karna, now I loved Karna. Anyone who reads Karna Kunti Sambad cannot but be moved by the way Tagore interprets the character — the abandoned son, the noble friend, the hero who refuses to leave his post even when offered the world.
And then a few years I read it again. And then again while doing my PhD. You would think that everything would be familiar, after so many years. But it was not. I was still discovering new things. Stories inside the story. An epic saga of love spanning births. An estranged son and a tragic father. A blood-curdling tale of revenge.
Was the battle 100 vs 5 or 105 vs 1 or just 1 vs 1? Why did Kunti really ask Draupadi to become polyandrous? Why do we hear so little of Nakul and Sahadev? Why did Bheesma take all those arrows before falling? Why did Karna waste precious battle time to get the wheel of the chariot out of the ground, when he could just as well gotten another, or fought standing? Why exactly, and yes I know the multiple curses on him, did he forget? What was the significance of Gandhari’s blindfold? What exactly did she tell Krishna at the very end?
I could go on but then I would start giving away spoilers for a book in the future. And another. And one more.
But for now, here is The Mahabharata Murders. Building itself off a personal reinterpretation of the Mahabharata, weaving in a serial killer murder mystery set in present-day Kolkata, it is my tribute to Amar Chitra Katha, my grandmother’s stories, the smell of paan and zarda, the hum of the radio, the expectation of what happens next, and of course, the Mahabharata, an ancient classic as well as a work-in-progress, challenging generations to re-imagine it the way they want, transcending space and time yet remaining deeply personal, capturing every emotion and every conflict known to man, a book that changes with you, and just when you are convinced you know everything there is to know about it, just then, like a good mystery novel, it tells you that you know nothing.
The Mahabharata Murders by Arnab Ray is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut.
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